- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2005

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — When I hit 40, I experienced that typical midlife crisis. I re-evaluated my life and realized that I had done most, maybe even all, of the things I had always wanted to do. I found myself wondering, ‘What’s next?’

Then it came to me. There’s a whole wide world out there just waiting to be explored. So I came up with a plan — a nice, long, 26-year plan to see the world. I would start with A and go through the alphabet, one letter a year. I have only one rule: My destination must be outside the continental 48 states.

I also gave myself the flexibility to pick a region rather than a precise destination. For instance, the first year, A was for Alps. I really wanted to go to Australia, but that was a little (OK, a lot) out of my budget. So we ended up in the small town of Kandersteg, Switzerland. It’s a quiet place and a well-kept secret. In April, the flowers are blooming, and the weather is sunny and cool.

I spent almost eight months trying to decide what to do for B. My husband tried to talk me into Berlin, but because we had both lived there as teenagers, I wasn’t too intrigued by that choice. Besides, I reasoned, with a whole world from which to choose, why go somewhere you’ve already been?

For B, we ended up in Belize. I found a great resort on the Internet and cheap round-trip tickets. We went in November. It turned out to be the perfect time of year. Because it was the slow tourist season, we were the only guests of the resort for half the week. We canoed through a cave, climbed on Mayan ruins and rode horseback through a tropical jungle. The sun was blazing at times, but the pool at the resort was the perfect place to cool off.

Deciding on C was a little easier. I picked the Czech Republic. Eastern Europe has always fascinated me. Once again, I turned to the Internet for cheap airfare. We flew round-trip from Washington Dulles International Airport to Prague for just $563.50 each. Of course, we had a three-hour layover each way in Amsterdam, but it was worth the savings.

Besides, Holland’s Schiphol Airport is not a bad place to spend a layover. We wandered through the international terminal checking out the sculptures, stopped at the computers offering high-speed Internet access on the concourse to check our e-mail and send notes home, and enjoyed one of the best cups of airport coffee I have ever had ? with fresh pastries.

I also used the Web to find a hotel in Prague. You take something of a risk picking a hotel without having seen it, so, after narrowing my choices to a few, I spent several days surfing sites where travelers give opinions of hotels. That ended up being a wise decision. The first two hotels I was considering were panned soundly by previous guests. I finally picked the Hotel U Tri Korunek and made the reservations online. Total cost for seven nights, including a hot breakfast every morning, was about $400.

I really wasn’t sure what there was to see and do in the Czech capital, so my next stop was the bookstore. I picked up Lonely Planet’s guide for Prague and a city map, chose a couple of must-see locations and left the bulk of the week to chance.

My husband wondered if we could pop over to Poland because we were going to be so close. After some more research, we settled on a day trip to Czestochowa. It’s a religious pilgrimage site and home of the Black Madonna, a Catholic icon.

Booking train tickets from Prague turned out to be more than I could figure out on my own, so I contacted a travel agent in my hometown in Virginia. We decided to take an overnight train that would arrive early in the morning, spend about half the day and take an afternoon train back to Prague. The cost for both tickets, including a two-person sleeper berth, was $409.

The week in Prague was a delight. The churches are magnificent. We spent an entire day exploring the Prague Castle. We visited the Charles Bridge at least three times, and we wandered the old heart of the city admiring the art and architecture for almost two whole days. Prague, as it turns out, is extremely affordable.

The guidebook said Czech cuisine includes a lot of wild game, so we looked for a restaurant to try some. Most of the restaurants post the daily specials and menus outside. It’s a very European thing to do and helps you decide whether to go inside for dinner.

That’s how we found the charming U Certa restaurant. A big board posted next to a funny-looking plastic statue of a devil — ‘certa’ means devil — touted the wild boar, venison steaks and hare. It was exactly what we had been seeking.

My husband opted for the venison steak; I ordered the boar. Each came with a fried potato pancake or dumpling. Because we knew there would be a lot of sharing, we each picked one. The dumpling looked as if it had been cut off a dumpling loaf. It was a slice of half-inch-thick heaven, especially when dipped into the gravy for the meat. We had a four-course meal, with dessert and drinks, for about $40. We ended up at that restaurant twice and tried the skewered venison and hare the second time around.

To save a few dollars here and there, we even opted for a ready-made roast chicken and fresh baked rolls from a grocery store a couple of nights. Throw in some wine and fresh tomatoes, and you have a picnic dinner in your hotel room for a few dollars.

My next stop will be Dublin. That’s where I’ve decided to go for D. I’ve been lucky with off-season travel, so I’ll try it again this year. I’ve got an idea of where I want to go in the years ahead. Fiji is calling to me for F.

I want to get to every continent at least once. (That may not be too easy when it comes to Antarctica, given the expense and the fact that A was for Alps.) I may try a safari in Kenya if I can save up enough cash.

It doesn’t really matter, though. As long as I keep traveling, I’ll always have something to anticipate happily.

• • •

Plane tickets: www.travelocity.com, www.orbitz.com, www.cheaptickets.com, www.expedia.com.

Kandersteg, Switzerland: www.kandersteg.ch/kandersteg.html

Belize: Windy Hill Resort, www.windyhillresort.com/, (011) (501) 824-2017, two-night all-inclusive packages start at $490 per person and include round-trip transfers, lodging, meals, tours, entrance fees, guide fees and taxes.

Czech Republic: www.czechtourism.com or 212/288-0830. Hotel U Tri Korunek, 28 Cimburkova St. Prague; www.3korunky.cz/ or 420/222-781-112. High season (April through October) rates begin at about $95 for a single for the night. U Certa restaurant, 4 Nerudova St., Prague; multicourse meal with wild-game entree, about $20 a person.

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